By Maryann Kerr (November 12, 2019)

Sabotage to Support: A new Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace by Joy L Wiggins & Kami J. Anderson, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, May 14, 2019, 208 pp., $22.12

Have you ever heard people talking about you when you were out of earshot or somewhere unseen? Maybe in a washroom stall?  And you realize the people who’ve just come into the room are talking about you … and they’re not saying nice things.  

I was in my early twenties and the lead organizer of a conference for women leaders from university and college campuses across Ontario.  The conference was an opportunity for a group of young feminists to talk about what was working and how we can elevate our voices.  And the voices I heard talking about me said, She’s SO male identified.  Wears too much makeup.  Those shoes. Good conference though.  So great to see you.

I was mortified, but I didn’t wait until they left to emerge.  I’ll never forget their faces as I smiled hello, washed my hands and fixed my lipstick.  I had learned a valuable, yet painful lesson.  Reading From Sabotage to Support: A New Vision for Feminist Solidarity in the Workplace by Joy L. Wiggins & Kami J. Anderson involved a lot of “yes, and …” moments for me.  Many women have told me their worst workplace experiences have been at the hands of other women.  Joy Wiggins and Kami Anderson heard those stories too.  

[Wiggins] has followed up and recorded many of those stories that showcase how this insidious and often subtle form of intragroup oppression happens in ways that we might not be aware of.  Many women have asked her what we can do to decrease the wage gap, have better experiences at work, stop sabotaging, and improve women’s lives in general.

Wiggins and Anderson suggest this intragroup oppression is due to the patriarchal system in which we live and work.  They have solutions and reading this book is a big step in the right direction.  The authors ask us to learn about feminist cultural history, identify our various social identities, check our privilege and reflect on our intrinsic bias, judgements and assumptions.  Peppered with their personal experiences and stories, they keep it from becoming an overly academic piece, a potential pitfall for two people with PhD’s.  

If you’ve not heard or understood the terms intersectionality, microaggression, white fragility and intercultural solidarity, Wiggins and Anderson walk us through them with very personal illustrations of the theory played out in their own lives.  They share their vulnerabilities.  They open themselves up in order to help others learn and grow, and they talk about why it shouldn’t always be expected of them and others.  

The authors share both an academic and personal view of how the term intersectionality is now designated to cover all forms of social identity and oppression including but not limited to race, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, ability and so on.  They argue that 

“Kimberlé Crenshaw coined [the term intersectionality] after examining outright discrimination in police engagement, especially the criminal justice system and the overrepresentation of black women in the prison system. Crenshaw explains, ‘Because of their intersectional identity as both women and people of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, the interests and experiences of women of color are frequently marginalized within both.’…Intersectionality has been used incorrectly inside and outside of feminism.  It is important to be clear here:  there have been ways in which intersectionality as a term has been universally applied to everyone; however, its actual intent is to directly address racially marginalized groups and the many levels of systemic and cultural discrimination.”

Kami Anderson writes,

“I consider myself one of the people Crenshaw was talking about when she crafted her theory on intersectionality.  I am black, I am woman, I am American, I am mother, I am professional, I am wife, I am bilingual.  And even though I may be the picture of intersectionality, it doesn’t mean I can’t and shouldn’t reflect on it.  It all ties into privilege.  My privilege may not look the same as Joy’s, but there are some commonalities.”

Joy Wiggins says,

“To me, intersectionality is understanding how black women’s voices have been sidelined and systemically silenced again and again – especially now as the term is being coopted to represent “diverse experiences.” How can I support women of color?  I know what it’s like to feel dismissed and unheard as a queer woman, so I can tap into that experience when someone is sharing similar experiences of dismissiveness.  I may not completely relate to it, but I know that I can use my positions of privilege to dismantle the power plays that happen on a daily basis.”

Throughout the book Wiggins and Anderson provide opportunities for the reader to move from systems thinking to self-reflection and individual action.  It is a journey in understanding that the personal is political and that our individual actions matter.  They talk about the importance of self-care, self-awareness, self-realization, and of dropping the mask we wear as being part of the solution.  That they touch on the importance of vulnerability and authenticity, it will be no surprise that Brené Brown makes an appearance.  The authors explore the definition of being an “ally” and note that it is not a self-declared term but given by those who would see you as such.  There are even a few poignant and important pages on the role of men in liberation.

When I consider that fateful weekend where I was just beginning to express myself publicly as a feminist and advocate for equity and equality, I recall being hopeful that one of those young women might offer an apology.  We all say things we wish we hadn’t.  As Wiggins and Anderson point out, most of those comments happen because we are socialized to compete with and judge one another.  It is our intrinsic bias and insecurity that causes both the delivery and receipt of these kinds of remarks, which have surfaced throughout my career, to be so painful.  They suggest to

“Think back to a time when you said something you now regret.  With what you’ve learned, how can you repair that incident now?  Reach out to that person.  When talking to them, think of the experience as an information-gathering process and come to a viable solution together, so that the other person walks away feeling heard and seen.”

There is no doubt that this book is a step towards change in the workplaces from one where we tear each other down and judge relentlessly to one where we build each other up.   It should be required reading for every university and college student, and for all those in the workplace who still have much to learn about living in a beautifully diverse world.  Wiggins and Anderson close with this:

If we can all abandon the competition and reach out to one another, only then can the real work of solidarity and transformation change our workplaces and our lives for equity and justice for EVERYONE…when interfacing with other humans, find ways to extend grace toward yourself and others.  When you need self-care take it and when you need some sisterly solidarity ask for it.  We all deserve to be heard and seen.”

Amen Sisters!  

As we prepare for the virtual National Day of Conversation, November 26th, hosted by AFP’s Women’s Impact Initiative, on the topic of workplace sexual assault and violence in the non-profit workplace, consider reading this book.  It just might open your mind and heart and provide tangible tactics to create the kind of workplace we strive to create in the world.  #ndoc

Interview with the authors

MARYANN: Our readers work primarily in the social profit—or non-profit—sector, a sector that, at its core, is about achieving equity across a range of social issues.  Many of us have an understanding of social movements and actively participate in them.  Yet, in our workplaces, we experience—and propagate—sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and so on.  We believe our workplaces should be held to a higher standard, but this is not the case.  Why do you think that is?

JOY- I think that depends on a variety of factors but mostly it probably lies in between the systemic ideologies and structures in which those organizations were formed and the employees implicit and sometimes explicit biases. Like we say in the book, it’s important to examine both of those factors when transforming any workplace. I would recommend examining the policies and procedures around bias on the organizational level but also the recruiting and retention efforts. On the individual and implicit bias level, creating employee resource groups that have a direct path to informing the leadership of what they need to be supported and ways the leadership can create a clear path to leadership for the employees. Of course, consistent and strategic trainings for the entire organization on all of the above mentioned issues is always critical. For example, when the women’s ERG reports out to the leadership about ways in which they can be more supportive, the leadership needs to be accountable to the ERG by mapping out exactly how it will implement the suggestions from the group. 

KAMI – I would also add that understanding history is a wonderful step and to add to that the ability to understand varying perspectives based on those histories takes it further.  For example, I know more about the history of the queer movements working with Joy but understanding how those movements have shaped and molded her perspectives and lenses in a variety of contexts and situations takes me even further into understanding.  We discuss in the book, that knowing the history is the first step to solidarity and to actively strive to take more steps each time.

I would reiterate the need to examine retention and recruitment strategies and being able to vulnerably evaluate strengths and opportunities so that, as Joy said, you are transforming the workplace away from implicit and explicit bias in all areas.

Your premise that we are the products of the patriarchal system in which we work and live resonates.  If the personal is political, and I believe you make that argument beautifully in your book, what particular role is there for women who are in positions of power that is different than for those not yet there?  How is your answer different depending upon the social identities you bring to the answer?

JOY- The women that have made it to the top or the upper echelons will need to be strategic about the ways in which they work with other women. This may mean working with the Women’s ERG and creating a roadmap for creating a pathway to leadership that is informed by the ERG and by the leadership teams. Different social identities like race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, documentation status, class and age all have unique barriers that may not be apparent to the leadership teams so creating a brave space in which both the leadership educates themselves on those potential barriers and the women can be protected identifying the ways in which those barriers can be removed or mitigated while still rising to the top. That’s also up to the woman to decide what she wants to share. 

KAMI – Women in power have to step boldly and confidently in the knowledge that their position is prime for bringing other women along.  When. It comes to varying social identities, going back to understanding not only the social history but the organization’s history with these identities in various positions of power will help in providing a safe space to mitigate and remove barriers. I do think it is important to note that if a woman of color is the first to ever hold a leadership position in the organization, it comes with undue pressure “to get it right” and “not rock the boat.” It may not be intended, but it can be perceived that way.  How can an organization create an environment where the “first and only” or “one of few” for the moment still feels as though the position is not tenuous, and authenticity is expected to be highlighted and not hidden?

You reference Catalyst in your book.  In one of their studies they speak to the idea that men are evaluated in the workplace based on results, women based on their personalities.  For instance, a woman might be considered too emotional, brash or difficult to work with and these overshadow any results she may be producing.  Do you agree this is true and, if so, how do we change it?

JOY- Recently, I talked with a woman that was written up by HR because of her tone in an email by her male supervisor. This is a great example of this Catalyst study. The woman is now worried about everything that comes out of her mouth or written in her emails. She feels like she is walking on eggshells. When talking with HR, they basically didn’t support her and the report stood. This type of tone policing is very common and is a very damaging problem. What I think can be implemented is clearer policies about what these kinds of reports are used for and how they can be promoting misogynistic and patriarchal norms. The expectation was that she (according to her) put smiley faces on her emails and not be so direct. However, I think a training on the problems with these types of policies and how leadership and employees can co-create a policy that ensures that this type of overreporting or tone policing can be stopped. I think that depends on the organization’s mission and values as well as those of the employees. It has to be more collaborative and democratic.  

KAMI – As a former supervisor and as an employee, I have taken careful consideration of the words used to describe my performance, particularly as a Black woman.  I had a department chair that made it a point to only use results as a means of evaluation and a Dean that chose to use my personality as the gauge for performance.  Interestingly enough the department chair was a man and the Dean was a woman. I use these two examples because I think it almost mirrors the Catalyst study in ways that need to be addressed in the workplace. The results based evaluation did far more productivity because is objective and data driven.  Being able to increase student performance for example is far easier to identify than whether or not I smile enough when speaking with colleagues. Collaborative policies that allow organizations to highlight results over tone policing is optimal to ensure that implicit biases do not emerge unnecessarily.

(Maryann Kerr has served local, provincial and national organizations in executive leadership. She is currently the Chief Happiness Officer/CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group, a philanthropic firm she founded in 2016. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kerrmaryann/)

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